Technical difficulties at headquarters prevented a new post so we had the crack research staff dig through the archives room. I caught a few minutes of the USA-Mexico soccer battle Tuesday so this piece from November 2011 felt relevant.
Where were you when Tiger Woods clinched the President’s Cup for the United States with a great bunker shot? I hope you watched it live on the Golf Channel and didn’t wait for the Sunday replay on NBC. That’s what true Americans did.
I actually pulled for the U.S. to defeat the hated International squad, my love of this great country rising every time the camera zoomed in on the smarmy Greg Norman, captain of the opposing squad.
Why did I care? I actually have no idea. I really have nothing against Greg Norman, wish he would have won three or four more majors. Partly it’s because I am president of the Tiger Woods Will Still Break Jack’s Record For Most Majors Club and any round that sees him hit more fairways than spectators qualifies as a success these days. So it was nice to see him clinch it, in front of Norman, who boldly criticized the U.S. captain, Fred Couples, for picking Woods, the type of outrageous insult that could have turned into a war if William Randolph Hearst was still operating hundreds of newspapers in this country.
Why else did I care, if I really did? I…don’t know. The various team competitions in golf are, for the most part, ludicrously overhyped. When the Ryder Cup or President’s Cup rolls around in the fall, we suddenly hear talk about inspiring captains – Paul Azinger became a combination of Vince Lombardi, Bill Belichick and Phil Jackson when he led the U.S. to victory – and great teammates who lead the way with speeches over dinner, as if Phil Mickelson can be transformed into 1994 Mark Messier. The gleeful announcers talk about high-fives – almost always awkwardly delivered between golfers – and use words like courage when describing shots out of the sand, as if they’re broadcasting live from the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. As fans, we’re supposed to get worked up over insults from the Brits or South Africans.
It’s meaningless. Golf is an individual sport, it’s one of the great strengths of the game – one person, out there alone, fighting his physical skills and mental demons, with only a guy carrying his bag around to help him. You can create various formats of four-ball or best-ball but it’s all a diversion that comes at the end of the real season. The moments disappear from our minds about 20 seconds after NBC signs off.
Ask 100 golf fans for a Ryder Cup memory and 98 of them are probably talking about Justin Leonard’s putt in 1999. Quick: What’s your favorite Jack Nicklaus Ryder Cup moment?
Yet with this President’s Cup, I sort of bought into all of it. Blame Norman. Damn Aussies.
At least I cheered for the red, white and blue at the President’s Cup. That’s not always the case when it comes to international activities.
As a kid, I loved tuning in to ABC and watching Chinese Taipei’s giant children dominate American kids in the Little League World Series. Were the Taipei players too old to be eligible? Maybe. Did I care? No. I savored the 22-0 beatings, the 14-1 thrashings, followed by shots of weeping American schoolchildren being comforted by their surely disappointed, and possibly embarrassed, parents. I was always vaguely disappointed when an American squad – such as the Chris Drury-led Trumbull, Conn., team – prevailed in the title game. Maybe it all stemmed from jealousy. As a Janesville Little Leaguer, I would never have the chance to compete in the Little League World Series, so I didn’t want my fellow countrymen (boys) to enjoy their experience. An immature reaction, to be certain.
I don’t remember the Miracle on Ice, but I do recall reading about it a few years later and feeling a bit sorry for the Soviet players. It was around the time I learned about gulags and I pictured them being sentenced to a little bit of time in Siberia. Also, what was it like to be so hated by most of the world? The players didn’t dictate policy or order an invasion of Afghanistan but they were the public figures of the state, crushing all opposition on the ice. Even the other communist countries that supported them probably only loved them out of fear.
If Joseph McCarthy or Roy Cohn still operated in Washington, they might call me to testify in front of an anti-American-sports committee, where I’d be confronted and condemned by Al Trautwig, Al Michaels, Dick Button and Dan Hicks. My god, was I a godless Commie child?
These Soviet sympathies didn’t extend to the basketball court. No, not to the court. I’m still enraged over the 1972 Olympic gold medal game and every story I read or documentary I watch only adds to the frustration, even if the game took place three years before I was born. I remember being very upset when the Brazilian team – led by sharp-shooting Oscar Schmidt – upset the Americans in the 1986 Pan Am Games. The 1988 loss by the U.S. to Arvydas Sabonis and the USSR had me calling for a change in leadership with USA Basketball.
And when the 1992 Dream Team laid waste to the competition, I argued with those who accused them of being nothing but hardwood bullies. Don’t you see, I’d explain, we had to do this. We had to make a point about the game and our country. It all goes back to 1972. Also, that team had Magic. That made a difference.
My support – or lack thereof – for American teams on the international stage has no pattern. I’ll cheer for underdogs but also love dominant squads – like the Dream Team.
Everyone experiences some of this during the Olympics. Suddenly, millions of people care if the American luge team has what it takes to compete for the gold, or even the bronze. I find myself reading scouting reports on water polo teams from Eastern European countries, searching for weaknesses or signs of steroid abuse. In 1988, as the Lakers began the second half of a season that ended with them becoming the first NBA team to repeat as champions in 19 years, I found myself enthralled by the battle between the Brians at the Winter Games, as Brian Boitano edged Brian Orser for gold in men’s skating. Yes! He nailed the triple-loop! Am I that much of a sucker for Bob Costas-narrated feature pieces accompanied by sad music? Yes.
Skating and gymnastics do allow us all the chance to hate judges. Even if I’m not cheering for the American women, it’s still fun to rant about stern-looking female judges who are most likely being paid under the table to destroy the dreams of our girls. They’re probably relatives of Stalin.
I seem to have an affection for American skiers, perhaps because they seem like such underdogs compared to the sleek racers who grew up on the European slopes (but shouldn’t I enjoy their dominance? Again, no pattern.) Bill Johnson thrilled me in 1984, Bode Miller disappointed me in 2006.
Michael Phelps’s performance in 2008 proved inspiring, partly because of his home country but also because I love watching history being made. If it had been a Frenchman winning that many golds, I probably would have waved their flag. Have I watched more than two non-Olympic swimming competitions in my life? No. This was different.
The World Cup presents its own issues. The U.S. is usually the underdog – at least in the men’s tournament – but I find myself cheering for their opponents, whether it’s a team from Africa or one from South America. Every time the American team wins it’s a momentous event and if you don’t appreciate that, the sentiment seems to go at times, well, then, you’re something of an idiot for not understanding the moment or the sport.
So conflicted. Why can’t I just wrap myself in the flag and root for our gymnasts and soccer players and equestrian stars and hockey players? If I had ever made the U.S. Olympic ping-pong team, I would have wanted my fellow countrymen to cheer for me and not my favored foes.
At this point it’s probably too late to change. It remains a case-by-case, sport-by-sport, athlete-by-athlete situation. Tiger at a future Olympics? USA! USA! Jingoistic fever over a soccer game? Go away.
I’ll always pull for American greatness – except when I don’t.